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Strategy - Contested Space - banner

The Australian Defence Force and contested space

By Malcolm Davis

This new Strategy report looks at war on the high frontier of outer space, and what the implications such a development might have for the ADF. It highlights that space is not a sanctuary from geopolitical rivalries. The report notes that Australia is heavily dependent on the space environment, both for its national prosperity and societal well-being, and for its defence and national security, and the report examines Australia’s current approach to use of space for Defence.

The report then examines emerging counterspace threats. China and Russia are moving towards deploying a suite of ‘counterspace capabilities’ to deny access to essential space systems used by the US and its allies, including Australia, prior to, or at the outset of a military conflict. These include direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons that physically destroy satellites in orbit after being launched from Earth’s surface; they are testing technologies that could be applied towards a co-orbital ASAT system designed to attack satellites from space; and have a range of ‘soft-kill’ ground-based technologies to disrupt, damage, and disable – but not destroy - satellites.

Author Malcolm Davis notes that, 'China is developing the ability to rapidly attack US and allied (including Australian) critical space infrastructure prior to or at the outset of a future military conflict, in what amounts to the risk of a ‘space Pearl Harbor’ that would be designed to leave the US and its allies ‘deaf, dumb and blind.’ Such an outcome would severely erode the ADF’s ability to undertake information-led joint, integrated and coalition operations.'

The report highlights the risks posed by ‘soft-kill’ systems described above. These don’t generate space debris, and thus have greater operational utility and anonymity, and they raise the threat of ‘grey zones in orbit. The report also examines efforts towards legal and arms control measures to constrain space weaponization and explores how these can contribute to reduce the prospect of warfare in space.

The report finally makes a number of recommendations on how Defence should respond to this challenge to maintain freedom of action in space.